Is Cholesterol Really bad For You?
Most, if not all human function is completed through nutrient transport - namely through blood pathways.
To put it in perspective - without proper blood flow, your body will struggle to perform in the gym, in the bedroom, and even intellectually.
This is one of the main reasons why many pre-workout supplements will have vasodilators in them. These help to increase the amount of blood and nutrients you can transport throughout the body.
From this perspective, blood flow becomes one of the most important aspects of our overall health. Without proper blood flow you may feel fatigued, weak and, as the science will show, the increase of heart disease (north America's leading killer) will increase dramatically.
This is where the conversation about cholesterol comes into play.
Let’s get one thing clear - cholesterol is not, in any way, bad for you.
You do need a certain amount in your diet, and your body will actually create a certain amount on its own. What we do have confused is the amount of cholesterol, namely LDL cholesterol we need in our daily diet in order to live healthily.
High Density Vs. Low Density Lipoproteins
High-density lipoproteins and low-density lipoproteins. These are the bread and butter for much of the transport of cholesterol throughout the body.
These are the guys responsible for recycling cholesterol. They transport plaque and buildup away from the heart. For this reason, many people see HDL as good cholesterol and a type that you should consume more of.
LDL, commonly referred to as bad cholesterol, is similar to the plaque that builds on your teeth. LDL transports proteins for cell growth and healing. That buildup of plaque is put in place to heal arterial walls and is a completely normal human function.
The question is then, why does our body create its own, and how much do we really need? First we must consider what cholesterol is.
What is Cholesterol?
In the most basic terms, cholesterol is a building block within cell membranes. Your brain contains cholesterol, your cell walls contain cholesterol - most soft tissue will contain a minimal amount of cholesterol to enable growth.
This means that cholesterol is not bad.
With that said, it needs to be noted that a diet containing high amounts of low-density lipoprotein (which transports cholesterol to the tissues) is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
For this reason, many people will limit their intake of cholesterol-rich foods because they do not want the LDL to transport that cholesterol (which can form plaque and lead to heart disease) to the arteries.
The main problem does not occur with high cholesterol, the problem occurs when you body does not have the ability to effectively clean out the cholesterol from the blood.
Where Do You Find Cholesterol?
Many high-fat food sources such as butter, cheese, red meats will contain a high amount of saturated fats which is where the main accumulation of LDL cholesterol comes from. This high amount of saturated fats can increase the amount of cholesterol the body produces.
In addition to high-fat products, foods that contain high amounts of refined sugar can also lead to inflammation. The combination of inflammation in the arteries due to high sugar and increased cholesterol from high fat can be very taxing on blood flow and may lead to corresponding heart disease.
You might ask, “well, what food can I eat”?
Eating for Healthy Cholesterol Levels
Now that we know that high sugar and high fat are not necessarily the foods we should be eating (specifically refined sugar and saturated fats), what food can we eat in order to live a healthy lifestyle?
Eat Fibrous Foods
Hands down the best food you can eat to balance out your cholesterol levels come from fiber rich foods. Fiber, as you may know, is an indigestible source of carbohydrates that will work similar to a sponge. The fiber will flow through your body virtually soaking up the cholesterol and transporting it away with HDL’s.
Research shows that eating a diet high in fiber can lower your risk for coronary heart disease. It's as simple as eating more vegetables, fruit and dark grains that contain high amounts of fiber. As a general rule of thumb, you should do your best to consume complex carbohydrates whenever possible as these will contain the highest amounts of fiber and the greatest spectrum of other muscle building nutrients.
BONUS: These foods contain very little to no fat and have a good variety of amino acids.
Eat Leaner Proteins
Not all meats are bad. Not all fats are bad. It's important to understand and start reading the label on your foods. Most food you buy at the store will show a brief overview of the types of fats you will be consuming.
Substituting your regular high fat meats like beef and pork and eating better proteins like lean chicken, fish, beans and soy will help to drastically lower the amount of LDL and corresponding cholesterol being transported to the artery.
Think About Why You Eat Protein
If you’re a bodybuilder or strength athlete you eat the protein for the protein. Consuming protein for the sole purpose of gaining muscle means that you have no need for high amounts of fat in your meat. Consume the lean sources, avoid the high saturated fats and limit your risk for heart disease.
Eat the Right Fats
We must not forget that fat is still an essential element in your diet. We always want to emphasize that balance is key - and this includes a moderate source of fat in your diet.
We do want to limit LDL levels and this means lowering our consumption of trans fats and saturated fats.
This leaves the option of eating a diet containing mostly unsaturated fat sources. These foods include olive, peanut, safflower, sunflower, soybean and corn oils as well as nuts and seeds.
Unsaturated fat is generally recommended because it does not seem to have any correlations with an increase in LDL, rather, it can actually increase HDL levels helping to recycle cholesterol for healthy blood and oxygen transport.
How to Reduce Cholesterol
The current guideline for cholesterol levels may still not be low enough. Most guidelines for LDL levels will recommend that you maintain a cholesterol level below 100mg/dl although research will show that lower is best.
Here are some things you can do to maintain a healthy cholesterol level:
Perhaps the one we were all taught from an early age. Limiting your smoking will drastically lower the buildup of plaque in the arterial walls.
Limit Intake of Fatty Meats
As much as we love them, high-fat meats such as beef, pork, venison and other red meats can increase the accumulation of bad cholesterol in the arteries. The important note here is to limit your intake. Any reduction, no matter the size can help you to lower your total intake of saturated fats.
Limit Intake of Hydrogenated Oils
This is where you get the majority of your trans fats from. Hydrogenated oils such as margarine, baked goods, coffee creamers are all created by a process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid.
As a general rule of thumb, any food that is made chemically might not be the best option.
Limit Intake of Dairy
Sad to say but the cheese intake should be limited as well. According to the American heart association, limiting your intake of whole-fat dairy can be a step in the right direction toward limiting risk factors for high cholesterol.
What Are We Left With?
Too much of anything can be a bad thing. Too much protein can lead to stress on the liver, kidneys and other internal organs. Too many carbohydrates can lead to an insulin resistance and potentially weight gain.
The secret here is to always make the most educated dietary choice possible. We know that cholesterol is not bad, yet in some cases, limiting the number of dietary fats can help to promote healthier levels of LDL - which in turn can drastically reduce your risk for atherosclerosis and heart disease.
Consuming a well-balanced diet that contains lean proteins, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats will help to balance your cholesterol levels and lead to a greater response in strength, conditioning and overall health.